Staff working at Blachford Lake Lodge say they have been “left on the street” with no accommodation and missing pay after the lodge abruptly closed this week.
A Wednesday notice at the lodge’s Yellowknife office, bearing the name of owner Mike Freeland, stated that the business was “ceasing all operations” as funding to keep going had not arrived.
On Friday afternoon, clients whose bookings were cancelled received an email appearing to have come from insolvency management firm BDO Canada, stating that Taiga Sports Fishing Ltd, the company operating the lodge, had entered bankruptcy proceedings.
Multiple attempts to reach Freeland and others with connections to the lodge’s management were not successful.
On Friday, former employees gathering at Cabin Radio said they had heard nothing from the company beyond a sudden email from Freeland telling them to get on a plane, leave the lodge, and wait to be “informed of your pay situation at a later date.”
Friday was pay day, six employees said. No pay was received.
Employees, many of them attracted to work at Blachford from other countries, estimate they are owed more than $10,000 each in a combination of wages and tips yet to be paid out.
They say pay had been inconsistent ever since they arrived at the lodge in mid-December for its winter season, and a bookkeeper sent out to the lodge to address employees’ questions about pay irregularities had been unable to provide satisfactory answers.
Looking back, some of the employees said, there were clues that something was amiss.
Chef Pierre Jette said an order of fish and coffee last week could not be fulfilled by an expeditor because the payment wouldn’t go through. A bill for an InReach subscription – a type of satellite communications device used to stay in touch in the NWT wilderness – was not paid. Supplies arriving for a wedding appeared, conspicuously, to have been sourced from a dollar store.
But at the same time, the lodge was packed. Full houses, week after week, staff said.
“It was extremely busy, back to back to back. We had a huge wedding and then more people, more people,” said Carmen Trujillo, hired to manage the lodge throughout this winter season, which was due to wrap up in April.
When small payments didn’t go through, Trujillo was not fazed. “You think maybe they just misplaced something or changed the credit card,” she said. “It never crossed my mind that it would come down to this.”
Trujillo only discovered the lodge was closing, and she and her staff were all out of work, when a junior colleague came to her with news of the email Freeland had sent. At the time, she was preparing for what she thought would be 18 more guests on the next inbound plane.
“Me being the manager, I feel so unrespected,” said Trujillo, who is originally from Mexico. “Nobody ever told me. Nobody reached out to me to tell me this was going to happen. I was in the worst position, with no answers for anybody. I felt like a fool. It was so horrible.”
Trujillo then had to get 25 guests into a plane before packing all the staff into a second aircraft, within hours. One guest expecting to spend more than a week aurora-viewing at the lodge had to be found and told to hurriedly gather their belongings.
As that was happening, Trujillo sent emails to the lodge’s human resources manager in Ontario and a marketing employee in Manitoba. Both of them wrote back to say they had received the same message and could not help.
Even on Friday, Trujillo was still sending emails looking for answers. As she spoke with a reporter, a reply arrived from the lodge’s finance department to a request for her record of employment.
“Sorry, Just like you, I got laid off,” Trujillo said, reading aloud the emailed response. “I don’t work for Blachford any more.”
“It’s so humiliating and I feel robbed, personally,” Trujillo concluded. “I understand that companies fall out of business. The way these people are doing it is just completely wrong. They have not been honest with us.”
‘A guest gave me money’
Life at the lodge as a staff member is not a luxury experience.
“Most people who come to this lodge working, we’re all adventurous people,” said Jette, the chef.
“That’s why I got into cooking, to work in places like this [but] the living conditions were extremely difficult. After your shift, you have to start a fire and it’s 40 below. It’s not like a regular job where you just go home.
“I have so much respect for these younger kids who put up with this all season. It’s extremely difficult to be winter camping and putting in effort like they have been.”
Like almost every staff member at Blachford this winter, Australian Leticia Hargreaves was in her first season at the lodge.
Hargreaves, who spent most of her time on the aurora-viewing night shift with guests, remembers working a 17-hour-day to help a wedding go off without a hitch, overtime for which she now worries she’ll never be compensated. Others said they worked practically entire 24-hour days around special events like New Year’s Eve.
“Apparently, this was their first year that they had paid employees. In the past, it had been run by 20 or so volunteers,” Hargreaves said. (After this article was first published, two former Blachford employees said the lodge had always had at least some paid staff, but did usually rely on some volunteer support – the equivalent of WWOOF workers.)
“Why would they put on a whole team of paid staff if they knew funds were critical, and not share any of this stuff with us?” Hargreaves continued. “Why are we the very last people to find all this out?”
Anika Dutil-Moser, a 19-year-old from Ontario, worked as a bartender and guide at the lodge.
She, Jette and two other staff members are being put up in Yellowknife by two longtime residents who have long helped out at Blachford. Others are staying with one of the expediting team, while Trujillo has found emergency accommodation with a local guest at the lodge who, perhaps unsuspectingly, once told her: “If you ever need anything, let me know.”
But Dutil-Moser’s bigger problem is where to go next, and how.
“I have to pay a $1,300 plane ticket to get back to where my car is,” she said. While most staff members already had return flights booked by the lodge, those flights are almost all scheduled for mid-to-late April, meaning you either find a way to spend a month in Yellowknife or rebook.
“One of the guests, she was very, very helpful and she gave me a bit of money to help me out,” Dutil-Moser told Cabin Radio. “But it shouldn’t come down to guests having to help us financially or in any way. It’s not their place to do it, and I’m extremely grateful for that person.”
She added: “I don’t have a place to go back home to. I’m stranded.” (Jette appealed for anyone in a position to help out Dutil-Moser with accommodation or part-time work to get in touch.)
Bankruptcy info ‘in due course’
The six staff members who spoke with Cabin Radio said they could not understand how such a busy lodge – which, if anything, felt to them understaffed and oversubscribed – was earning so little revenue that it must close.
Three-night packages at the lodge start at around $2,000. The Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, which otherwise did not comment on the lodge’s closure, said its parent company Taiga Sports Fishing received $234,606 in grant contribution supports from 2020 to 2022, during the pandemic, and $131,322 in the years 2016 to 2019.
“This has been the busiest season ever, that was said always by Mike,” Trujillo recalled, referring to Freeland.
Blachford Lake Lodge has long been one of the NWT’s tourism crown jewels. (NWT Tourism’s chief executive officer did not respond to a request for comment for this report.) However, almost all tour operators in the territory suffered a significant financial hit during the pandemic public health emergency, when travel into the NWT was essentially banned for most non-residents.
Multiple people with knowledge of the lodge said Freeland – long championed by Yellowknife residents for creating and maintaining a tourist experience valued as much by locals as by global tourists – is also experiencing health issues that may have affected his ability to manage the company’s affairs. Neither Freeland nor anyone able to speak on the lodge’s behalf made themselves available to comment.
Trujillo, as the lodge manager, had heard only rumours to that effect. She said Freeland had not attended the lodge since her employment began in December, and she questioned why, regardless of whether health concerns or other factors were involved, the business would bring in employees from across the world and tell them nothing about the situation.
Summarizing Blachford’s public statements to date, Freeland’s Wednesday notice stated that “the expected funding required for Blachford Lake Lodge to complete its current season has fallen through.” What that funding was, and from where it was expected, is not clear. BDO Canada, in its email to guests, said “all future booking are cancelled and guests should not travel to Yellowknife in connection with any future bookings.”
The BDO Canada message continued: “Statutory correspondence with respect to the bankruptcy will be provided in due course to guests who have made deposits on future bookings, and which may be used in an attempt to make a claim through any applicable travel insurance or credit card coverage.”
The lodge’s website, which was down on Wednesday, has now returned, though the lodge’s social channels remain offline. By Saturday morning, a listing on realtor Coldwell Banker’s website – which had earlier offered the lodge for sale for $3.9 million – appeared to have been deleted, though a PDF version was still accessible. On the same website, two other Yellowknife tourism-related businesses and their assets remain for sale.
“I still love the Northwest Territories,” said Hargreaves, the Australian aurora night shift worker.
“Out at Blachford, nature-wise, it is an absolutely stunning and beautiful place. The isolation, the remoteness, being in the wilderness with other people. We get to meet these cool guests from all over the world. Seeing the aurora is so, so special.
“I don’t change my opinion of the NWT,” she insisted. “It hasn’t been tainted by Blachford.”